Schleiermacher vs. theistic evolutionism

So-called theistic evolutionists sometimes distinguish themselves from creationists by saying that God used evolution to creation life on earth, rather than creating it directly through a special divine act. I’m generally sympathetic to this view, at least in the sense that I’m a theist who believes that evolution is the best account going of how life developed on earth.

However, after reading Schleiermacher, I’m having second thoughts about theistic evolution, or at least how it’s frequently explained. This isn’t because Schleiermacher was a “creationist”–at least not in the sense that we would think of that term. He certainly didn’t take the biblical creation stories to be offering historical or scientific accounts of how God made the world.

What he did think was that everything that exists is an expression of the divine creativity. Schleiermacher has an austerely non-anthropomorphic view of God: it’s a mistake, he argues, to think of God as one cause among other finite cause, or as one agent among others. There are not divine actions, but a single, eternal divine activity that expresses itself temporally in the unfolding of the created universe. God doesn’t act in response to events in the world on an ad hoc basis; everything that happens, happens because it is part of the whole created order which is willed by God. Science is capable, in principle, of giving a fully adequate account of the interconnections between events in the world; at the same time, though, the entire created order is grounded in the single divine creative act.

This implies, according to Schleiermacher, that for God there is no distinction between means and ends. Thus, to talk about God using evolution as a means of bringing about some other good (e.g., the existence of human beings) is to lapse back into the very anthropomorphic language he criticizes. Everything that exists is inextricably bound up with everything else, and we are in no position to suss out what is an end and what is a means. Or more accurately, everything is both end and means  because everything that exists is interdependent. Regarding the divine wisdom, he says this: “There is nothing outside the world which could be used as means; all things within it, rather, are so ordered that viewed in connexion with one another they each stand related as parts to the whole; while every particular in itself is so entirely both things–means and end–that each of these categories is constantly abrogating itself and passing over into the other” (The Christian Faith, § 168).

So I think Schleiermacher would say that “theistic evolutionism,” at least in some forms, is guilty of errors similar to those of “vulgar” creationism. That is, to the extent that it tries to identify certain natural processes as means that God uses to achieve a particular end, it is still thinking of God as a finite, personal agent. He would deny, I think, that Christians have any particular stake in the theological significance of evolution. Christian faith is grounded in our experience of redemption in Christ, and this transfigures our view of creation, allowing us to see it, in its entirety, as a gift of God’s good pleasure.

2 thoughts on “Schleiermacher vs. theistic evolutionism

  1. Burckhardtfan

    Coincidentally, I stumbled upon another article on the subject of Darwinism, Christianity and natural causality a few days ago. Don Cruse makes the point that modern Westerners – whether theists, atheists or anyone in between – are completely oblivious to the fact that they view causality from two contradictory lenses. The unreflective way people use terms like ‘mechanism’ and ‘Natural Selection’ reinforce the present confusion. It’s sobering to think that the way we view the world owes a big debt to the half-baked notions of centuries past.

  2. Pingback: Modern science, classical theism (3) | A Thinking Reed

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